Thursday, September 29, 2011
Thursday, March 31, 2011
Here's a post I did for Motherboard, a fine site about technology and stuff. The gist of it is that Jermaine Hall, the editor of Vibe sued a website because someone called him an uncle Tom. C'mon Jermaine, it's the internet! We're supposed to say incredibly fucked-up shit on here! Read more!
Monday, March 21, 2011
One of my favorite journalists over the past few months has been Abe Sauer, who writes mainly for the Awl, a site I can’t recommend enough. I guess you could call him a blogger, since he writes for a “blog,” but he’s an old fashioned muckraker who really works his ass off finding out things that ordinary folk should know but don’t. Two months ago he published a revealing account of how US tax dollars are unconstitutionally used to support the proselytizing of Christian groups in Haiti, and more recently he’s been reporting from the union trenches in Wisconsin, documenting specific instances of Republican politicians straight up lying to their constituents and also spelling out connections between the now-ubiquitous Koch brothers, the Wisconsin Tea Party, and a new wave of anti-union, anti-government Republican candidates for office (who are often trained by organizations that claim to be “non-partisan”). Every time I read one of Sauer’s pieces I feel better educated about a topic, and though he clearly has what might be attacked as a “liberal agenda,” his opinions are clearly backed up by facts and good reporting.
His last article was a typically incisive, meticulously researched piece about Sarah Palin’s hunting and fishing license history. Wait, what the fuck? Yes, a precisely documented and hyperlinked post that disproved one of the many images that Palin has been working to develop for months: namely, that she’s an outdoorsy woman, bespectacled Mark Trail with tits who like Ozzy would have no trouble biting the head of a live animal off onstage. There’s a lot of information—again, as usual for Sauer—in the article, but the central point is that Palin doesn’t have the licensing history for someone who claims to have been a “lifelong hunter” and a frequent worker on her husband’s commercial fishing boat. As Sauer sums up:
“She certainly has not wholly concocted some fairy tale about her outdoorsmanship. But what Palin's licenses do seem to paint is a picture of a candidate who has used a few experiences to justify an image makeover that appealed to a political demographic.”
Exposing a past that a candidate for office has whitewashed or touched up in the service of ambition is an old and honorable journalistic tradition. The problem is, wait, say it with me now:
SARAH PALIN AIN’T A CANDIDATE FOR SHIT
I mean, she has yet to announce her candidacy for president, although there’s widespread speculation that she will run after visiting India and Israel on a trip that only two kinds of people make: presidential hopefuls and “spiritual” 18-year-olds who have deferred their admission to Columbia.
More importantly, she is a fucking terrible candidate. Not quite Rick “Frothy Mix” Santorum-levels of terrible, but probably unelectable. Her negatives country-wide are through the roof, and even Republicans have begun to turn on her, perhaps deciding that nominating a reality-TV show star who quit the only statewide office she ever held might not be all that responsible. I imagine Obama is about as worried about Palin as Palin is worried about global warming. At this point, she isn’t even a frontrunner. There’s a small group of people who will like her up until and including the moment it is revealed that she and Todd enjoy a vigorous night of pegging every now and then, but everyone else either makes fun of her or ignores her—she’s like the cheerleader who is the most popular girl in school but only genuinely liked by the other jocks, a fairly sexist analogy that more or less stands up.
The people who like her will still like her after reading Sauer’s evidence that she shades the truth about her outdoorsyness; more to the point they won’t even read it, because it’s on a fairly liberal blog, and even if it was in the New York Times, Palinites have acquired the habit of reading only the publications that agree with them, or else not reading much at all. No matter how accurate, attacks on Palin at this point are pointless. She’s a human-shaped target covered in concentric circles of lipstick, and she’s a legendary courter of controversy. I can just hear her response to the Sauer piece in my head:
“So, y’know, some New York liberal Jew (she doesn’t say Jew, but we all know what “New York liberal” means, don’t we?) has written something on the in-ter-net, on a site called The All” (rolls eyes sarcastically like she’s having a seizure) “this liberal fella named Abe, he says that I’m a bad person because I didn’t get all my hunting permits in order every single year of my life!” (Makes “Whatta-ya-gonna-do” shoulder shrug.) “He thinks that because I don’t always go through all the beaurracratic (sic) red tape and because I have more important things to think about than remembering what years I got what pieces of government-issued paper—things like, I dunno, raising a family!” (you can’t hear it, but she just called Sauer childless, implying he was homosexual) “Now, what people like Sauer don’t realize…”
Etc. Etc. Palin thrives on attacks. She’s like the energy form of the Marvel Comics villain Onslaught, who was immune to all of the superheroes’ attacks because he lacked material form. Palin is similarly immune to any hit piece because she lacks substance. Attacking her garners page views, but doesn’t serve a larger point.
I’m not out to criticize Sauer in particular—journalists have been fairly challenging and reporting on Palin’s bizarre behavior and half-truths and willful ignorance ever since she appeared. But in the long run, attacking someone who will soon be a marginal political figure at best serves no purpose. Sauer has talents that could be better spent elsewhere, telling us things that we need to know, not that Palin lies about herself when she’s in front of a camera.
Update: Abe Sauer emailed me with an explanation that answered my question, "Why write about Palin now?"
After I did the piece on her inabilities hunting on display in Dec., I started filing FOIA requests for licenses. But, it's Alaska, and it's complicated this took a while to get the right request to the right person and then for them to fulfill it. (And I got sidetracked with Haiti in between). By the time it was all ready to go, a couple months had passed.
This information is now out there for anyone to use in the future and reference.
I know that blogging is fast and happens at breakneck speed, but sometimes information takes time to surface. Honestly, this seems so obvious that if some journalist at one of the hundreds of papers that have written thousands of articles about Palin in the last couple years would have done it, I wouldn't have had to at such a late date in her cycle of relevance.
Wednesday, March 16, 2011
Let’s say you’re a writer for a respected (well, pretty much) New York City publication. It’s your job to write things about New York, which is great, because everyone knows what people do in New York is important, especially if they are “creatives,” especially if they have money, and especially if they live in Manhattan. They are on the cutting edge of culture! What is that edge cutting? Why? What drugs are the young people doing? What music are they listening to? What cuisines are they consuming? These questions must be answered and it is your job to do it.
One way to do it is you could just get loaded with a bunch of trust fund babies, look around the room, and write about whatever you see.
That seems to be what Nate Freeman of the New York Observer did in what will no doubt will go down in infamy as another entry in that already-infamous genre, “The NYC Trend Piece.” Trend pieces, for the blissfully uninitiated, are articles that describe something that a supposedly broad group of people (usually rich people) are doing, but do so without any numbers at all. “Trends” are always described using anecdotal evidence, partly because statistics for trends are hard to come by, and partly because trend pieces are often bullshit that gin-soaked writers make up in the face of deadlines and demanding editors.
Here’s what, in journo-speak, we call the “nut graph” of Freeman's piece:
Young New Yorkers no longer care about having sex. It’s not the endgame, nor even the animating force of social interaction. Men and women still get dressed up, but not for the purpose of taking off their clothes in another’s company. What used to signify desire or the desire to be desired now boils down to narcissism. How will I look on Patrick McMullan tomorrow? Or just on Facebook? The Observer spent a few weeks at parties and gatherings fraught with abstinence but slack of any sexual tension, and we heard a repeated sentiment, often delivered with uncharacteristic fervor: “We are a self-obsessed generation.”
We might ask, for starters, what the hell? Since when does “spending a few weeks at parties” count as reporting? (Since we died and went to reporter heaven, I guess.) And how do you know they were “slack of any sexual tension”? No one was making out in front of you, or getting erections, or quietly taking off their panties in the bathroom? And what is “Patrick McMullan”? I’m a 24-year-old working in the media, and I have no idea what that is. Oh, Google reveals it’s a party photography company. Well, maybe people don’t try to dry-hump that much at the kind of fancy party with professional photographers that the Observer apparently went to. To put it succinctly: you guys are going to the wrong parties, apparently.
Elsewhere, the writer recalls a coke-fueled party that lasted until dawn, full of “day laborers in film, public relations, media, fashion”—get it? “Day laborers?” Because ironically, these people do not do hard labor and get paid a lot!—that disappointingly did live up to the writer’s expectation that “one should choose a member of the opposite sex and set off for his or her apartment, to sleep together.” Damn, I guess Nate Freeman really wanted these hot 20-somethings to bang. Maybe they were tired after a long night of cocaine.
The thesis that young New Yorkers like me don’t care about sex because online social networks, er, make social interactions awkward later (or something?) is backed up by a few quotes from people who are experts because they, themselves, are in their 20s and in New York. Those quoted seem to be having a tough time with their sex lives, and I can empathize to a degree: If you and your potential mates work long hours, it’s tough to schedule a night of fucking in. And maybe it’s awkward for some people to have sex with people who later appear in your Facebook feed—but c’mon, that’s a fucking stupid obstacle to stand in the way of a good orgasm.
Then, as is usual in the trend article genre, there are some people who are bucking the trend. Is this bucking the trend it’s own trend, or just a sub-trend of the original trend? Whatever--in this case, Freeman talks to a couple teenaged actors from Skins and concludes, “younger [more sexual] kids are poised to take their places.” Is that creepy to say? Maybe! Anyway, the kids who aren’t old enough to drink are totally DTF, and amusingly, they have no idea what the Observer is talking about, responding to questions about how undersexed New York with “I haven’t actually, um, heard that?”
Well, I haven’t heard that either. Maybe there’s not as much anonymous sex in this city as there used to be because, y’know, AIDS, but I’ve been to plenty of parties with sexual tension to go around. A few Manhattan people are too coked out and workaholic and obsessed with internet status to fuck each other senseless? They just have their priorities out of whack, and I don’t believe many of these people exist because I’ve never, ever met them. If people want to have sex but aren’t, it usually means no one will let them.
To fight anecdotal evidence with anecdotal evidence, I posted Freeman’s story to my Facebook wall and someone said, “Man, whatever. I do blow and fuck like every night.” Does that count as a trend?
Thursday, March 10, 2011
The funny thing about newspaper comic strips—I mean “funny” not as in “ha ha, good joke” but as in “strange, unsettling, troubling”—is how bad they are. Unacceptably bad, really terrible, just shockingly awful, especially when you consider the thousands of people who are drawing pictures and writing jokes and thinking of stories at this very second—why do so many comic strips seem to be created by those who can do none of these things? Why do so many strips hit the trifecta of being poorly drawn, unfunny, and consisting of characters who are just cardboard cutouts delivering stale jokes that weren’t funny the first time you heard them? Why, oh why Lord, in a universe where only so much time is allotted to us to enjoy earthly pleasures, does Momma exist?
Here’s where I could start researching the history of the syndication system, where I could discuss the demographics of most newspaper comics readers (my guess is they are very old and prone to writing letters when their favorite strips are cancelled) and the general tendency of mass media to produce bland entertainment that enfolds our daily existence like a soggy beige envelope—but lets skip all that. Let’s talk about Doonesbury instead, which for me is the last of the great comic strips, something akin to a the last majestic dinosaur struggling through the ashen landscape surrounded by malnourished rodents picking at the bones of his contemporaries.
What non-comics fans don’t think about very often is there were really great comic strips in the past, a roster I’d say includes Peanuts, Krazy Kat, Pogo, a bunch of classic adventure strips like Dick Tracy and Little Orphan Annie, Nemo’s Adventures in Slumberland (still trippy to look at after all these years), Gasoline Alley in its way—it was the first strip in which the characters aged, a rare feature that Doonesbury adopted—and more recently Calvin and Hobbes, Bloom County, and maybe The Far Side, but really the art for that last strip is pretty sub-par compared to the rest of the list. A few of those strips still survive today, but they are horrifying zombie carcasses of their former selves who should be shotgunned out of the pages of the papers they appear in (take a look at old Gasoline Alley strips—Fantagraphics has been putting out anthologies—and you’ll see how the strip has changed, mostly for the worse). There’s a lot of variety in all those strips I just mentioned, but all of their creators put blood and sweat, if not tears, into the work every day. Today so, so many strips are two or three panels with lazy linework, one bubble of dialogue per panel, and a flat punchline. They simply don’t try.
Doonesbury tries. It tries so hard that it has a whole set of problems that other comics don’t have. For instance, the strip’s cast of characters, originally a group of college students sharing a house way back in the early 70s, has expanded to the point where there are probably at least a hundred unique, named people that had recurring roles. It’s sort of intimidating to dive into a strip like that and try to figure out who everyone is—and what other strip can be intimidating to dive into? In addition, Doonesbury keeps up with current events in a way few other strips do, so if you only read the comics and sports pages, you likely won’t get some of the jokes, or care enough to follow the strip for long.
But wow, if you get into Doonesbury, there’s a lot to enjoy. There are elements of the serial-adventure strip in it (as I write these words, Jeff Redfern, son of strip regular Rick Redfern, is attempting to save a dictator from a bloodthirsty revolutionary mob in order to pay off a debt to a defense contractor), but every strip has a joke at the end, and pre-punchline dialogue that is pretty sharp. Sometimes, especially on Sundays, it turns into more of an editorial cartoon, which is why some papers have put Doonesbury permanently on the op-ed page. Most significantly in recent years, the strip has focused on veterans and active-duty military personnel in Afghanistan and Iraq, and by what I’ve heard doing a pretty good job representing and discussing pretty serious issues.
Then there’s the art, which has evolved from Gary Trudeau’s fairly dreadful chicken scratches in 1970 to a competent, workmanlike style in the 80s that repeated the same image across panels--the exterior of the White House, a character sitting in front of a television--far too often, to today’s strips, which are exceptionally clean, and stand out from other strips because it looks like someone took the time to storyboard them and to display the scene from different angles to create a sense of action—a simple thing, arguably, but something that no other comic on the page does.
The big flaw in Doonesbury is the political slant; it’s undeniably the work of a liberal who cares about politics, and sometimes, like in this February 13th Sunday strip, it really does become something like an editorial cartoon, or an extremely short op-ed column. I imagine that the more conservative you are, the less Doonesbury feels like art and the more it feels like windbaggy propaganda. (I’ve heard the same thing said about The Wire.) And like every strip ever made, there are off days, there are relatively boring storylines, there are places where it lags.
But seen as a continuous document, a narrative—like a soap opera or an exceptionally long novel—Doonesbury is an incredible achievement. It’s not just the story of a large and varied cast of characters, it’s the story of American politics over the last 40 years, seen through the perspective of journalists, activists, hippies, farmers, lobbyists, and soldiers. Doonesbury is the War and Peace of comic strips. It’s what journalism aspires to be, a rough draft of history. No other comic strip in newspaper history has linked itself so closely with current events. I’ve literally learned about the 80s by reading old Doonesbury collections, and you could do worse things for a clever child with an interest in politics than giving him some Doonesbury books. The strip really does merit preserving for future generations to look at, and I can’t think of any current comic about which the same could be said. Read more!